Like most of the men in the Wetherall family, Virgil had lost a finger or three over the years. The middle finger of his right hand had been taken by the timing belt of a 1973 Chevy Chevelle—had ripped it out at the root like an onion from the soil. On his left hand, he’d lost the pinky to a Husqvarna chainsaw and some bad kickback from a knot in a dogwood stump. The tip of the left forefinger had been mangled badly enough by a misjudged hammer swing while sinking fence posts that he’d had to have it removed altogether just a couple months later, before it rotted off by itself. Still hurt, even though it had been fifteen years. Phantom pain, the doc had called it. Of all the missing fingers, though, the one he missed most was the middle one, particularly at times like this, when golf balls rattled against the cage around the cab of the tractor and his instinct, like he was reaching for a gun, was to raise his right hand and flip those fuckers the phantom bird.
There was a perfectly good shell of an old Buick at the one-hundred-and-fifty-yard marker, which Virgil himself had daubed with a rainbow of beige and pastel paints from the reject bin at the Home Depot, but still the golfers drove balls right at the moving target of the tractor, like little brats throwing rocks at cats. Virgil was pumping his impotent fist at them, giving them the finger that was no longer his to give, when the phone in his pocket began to buzz and chirp. He answered it like he always did, by grunting, but saying nothing.
“Virg? Is that you?” It was Jack Monroe, at the Humane Society.
“Course it’s me,” said Virgil. “Who the hell else is gonna answer my phone?”
“Jesus, Virg. It’s not that hard to say hello, to say something,” said Jack.
Virgil said nothing. A golf ball ricocheted off the cage of the tractor’s cab.
“Couple things, Virg,” said Jack. “We’ve got a stray out north of town, somewhere near the Freiburg farm. Animal Control still haven’t found somebody to replace Milt, so I need you to go out there and pick it up, bring it in.”
“Listen, Virg,” said Jack, mistaking the grunt for refusal. “You pick the dog up, and I’ll double the hours for you.” Dogs barked in the background—explosive, concussive—and Jack raised his voice. “You’re coming up on a hundred now. Gotta be.”
“Okay, sure,” said Virgil. Ninety-three hours, not one hundred, so he’d take what he could get. The phone twisted in his hand, threatened to slip through the gap between his ring and index fingers, like it always did, and he clutched it tight against his ear. Ever since he’d lost the finger, nothing had quite seemed to fit his hand anymore—not the knob of a gearshift, the butt of a gun, nor the handshake of a stranger. The cell phone was just the most recent addition to this treacherous lineage.
“Couple things, you said. So what else?”
“Um, rendering truck’s on its way,” said Jack, “so once you’ve got the dog, get yourself back here to help him load it up. Doctor Kim’s coming in to check the dog out. Seems it’s in a bad way.” Barking rattled the phone’s speaker, a harsh, unhappy sound.
“Okay, sure,” said Virgil, and cut the connection.
In the parking lot, his twenty-year-old Chevy S-10 crouched among the Buicks and Lincolns and BMWs, as old and out of place at the Partridge Grove Golf Course as Virgil was himself. He had parked it in the shade of a sugar maple—a hangover from trying to keep the cab cool in the heat of the summer, even though it was already March and he had been doing the same thing for the whole winter, the coldest one in Kansas since the truck had been new. The truck had once been white, but its pedigree had long been compromised by a mismatched door and hood, one yellow ochre, the other sky blue. All of it was pockmarked by eruptions of bad primer that blistered and flaked the paint, like acne through teenage make-up. When Dylan Perkoff down at Corner Bank had refused him a loan for an almost-new F150 six months previously, Virgil had been relieved. Somehow, it had seemed like a betrayal to want to replace the Chevy, which had carried him more or less safely through twenty years of side-roads, shortcuts, and mistakes. Plus, a loan was like a stake in the future, and Virgil had always been suspicious of the future. If Perkoff weren’t such a dick, and didn’t spend his Saturdays hitting tee shots at the tractor as it gathered its harvest of Titleists and Callaways, Virgil might almost have forgiven him.
He drove north out of town, past the forsaken store fronts on Main, across the railway line at Gonzago’s Pizza and Pasta Emporium, and over the trickle of the Timber Creek. He preferred motion to repose, he realized, figured it was what defined him. For twenty years and more, he had moved from house to house, from town to town, and from state to state, just one step ahead of his poor judgment and bad decisions. He had skipped Tucson for Albuquerque after a D.U.I., and had run east out of Leadville when his marriage there to a hospice nurse had gone south. He had slipped out of Enid after sleeping with a state trooper’s wife, and had lit out of Durango for Dodge City after being fired from the Ranger service for telling his boss that she was doing a man’s job. Had meant it as a compliment. Finally, in Farfield, he’d been caught on the wrong side of another D.U.I. and stuck with a fine and community service. That had been three years ago, almost. He’d paid that fine, served those hours, but others hours had stuck to him, other citations, like burrs—traffic violations, a drunk and disorderly, a failure to appear. Not much, but enough to keep him busy. Enough for people to think he had a paying job at the Humane Society, if they didn’t know any better.
Winter hadn’t yet given way to the spring, and the fields of the Freiburg farm were still yellow, and empty. Virgil fired up a cigarette, held it pinched between his thumb and forefinger like Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne, only with fewer fingers. The smoke suffused him, soothed him. He coasted down the dirt road, scanning the roadside ditch through his open driver’s window, squinting against the pale sun low on the horizon. Under a hedge apple, bent north and low to the ground like a trail tree, he found the dog. It was crouched under the dogleg crook in the trunk of the tree, its head hung low, fur matted with dried blood. Through the open window of the cab, Virgil dropped the cigarette butt into the dirt, clambered from the truck, and crushed the butt under his boot-heel. He knelt on the dirt road, his knees cracking.
“It’s okay, boy,” he said, cleared his throat. “You can come here.”
He held his open hand palm up between them, like he was making an offering, noticed as if for the first time the deep creases, the knuckles like walnuts under thin skin. The dog crawled towards him, licked the notch of the missing finger of his outstretched hand.
“That’s it,” he said. “Good boy.” Tried to smooth the smoker’s growl out of his voice, tried not to clench his teeth at the sight of the wounds in the dog’s haunches, the cigarette burns on its head and back. His spent cigarette was twisted on the ground, shredded and crooked, the dog standing over it.
The dog was trembling. It leaned its flank into Virgil’s chest, shivered, hung its head low. Virgil could feel its heart beating fast and hard, clattering like a diesel engine against his chest, the way his own heart had raced and rattled when it had started acting up last spring. He wasn’t supposed to pick dogs up, he knew—a volunteer had been mauled doing the same thing just a few weeks before—but he did it anyway. He stood up, knees popping in the cold, and scanned the long horizon: a decaying silo; a motionless windmill; a house stripped of its siding on two sides, the pink insulation foam between the weathered studs like flayed flesh. In his arms, the dog sighed. The smell of singed hair, and piss, and the half-organic half-metallic tang of blood hung around the dog. It seemed skinny in his arms, but it probably still weighed seventy or eighty pounds, and his crooked heart thumped with the effort of holding it. He eyed the bed of the truck, but the door of the cab was already open, so he slid inside with the dog on his lap, and settled it beside him on the bench seat, the vinyl scuffed and cracked, even though nobody ever sat there, and hadn’t for longer than he cared to remember.
Virgil hadn’t had a dog in years, not since the farm dogs of his childhood, but he guessed that this dog’s thick copper coat and dark round eyes were those of a golden retriever. It had a white blaze on its chest, though, and its front paws were white, so it had to be a mongrel of some sort, what they liked to call a cross these days. It lay on the bench beside him, quiet as a derelict, as Virgil cranked the engine, wrestled the truck through a three-point-turn, and headed back the way he had come. The dog sat up to look through the windscreen at the road ahead that rose to meet them, while Virgil glanced at the half-stripped house in the rear-view mirror, at the porch heaped with garbage, at the tangled barb wire fence, and felt his missing finger start to itch. When he braked at the intersection with I-70, Virgil put his hand against the dog’s chest to stop it sliding forward into the footwell, felt its thick mane fill the space of his missing finger, and left his hand there, against the cool fur and the warm flesh.
There were only two cars parked out front at the Humane Society—Jack Monroe’s Civic and Doctor Kim’s Jeep—so Virgil eased the Chevy under the scant shade of a redbud, the only tree in the parking lot. The gas tank was almost empty, he saw, and he killed the engine, sat, and stared without seeing at the cinder-block building in front of him. The dog crawled across the seat, lay down across his lap. Virgil opened the squealing door, held the dog against his body, and slid from the truck.
Inside, Jack was at the front desk, reading glasses on his nose, pencil in his mouth, frayed Chiefs cap on his balding head. When Virgil came in with the dog in his arms, Jack sized them up from behind a rampart of paperwork. Dogs started barking, wild and forlorn.
Jack took the pencil from his mouth. “Jesus,” he said, nothing more.
“Yeah,” said Virgil.
“Um, get him in a cage, will you? Rendering truck’s out back, and I need you to help out with that first, ‘cause he’s already running way late. Should only take a couple minutes. When you’re done, bring him into Doctor Kim, will you? The dog, I mean. Hang on, I’ll get the door for you.”
Virgil nodded. The door of the main holding area was heavy, the better to insulate the lobby from the din and pulse of plaintive, harried barking, and when Jack pulled it open the noise was so loud that Virgil could feel it as a buzzing vibration in his skin, and in his bones. The piss and shit stink of misery enveloped him, suffused him, and the door closed behind him. In Doctor Kim’s room at the back, there were a few standalone cages that he knew would be quieter, so he carried the dog there, past the ranks of cinder block cubes with wire mesh doors, the dogs on their hind legs, their paws against the doors, their noses pushed through the mesh, barking. There were some that still wagged their tails, despite the noise and the stench. The dog in Virgil’s arms did not, but he watched the other dogs, his head cocked, his ears twitching, curious.
There were a couple of other vets who volunteered at the Humane Society, like Doctor Kim did, but Virgil always thought of the surgery as Doctor Kim’s room. She was the only one who personalized the cramped space in any way—a calendar, photos of her children on the noticeboard, a coffee mug with the words “Real doctors treat more than one species.” Not much, but more of a mark than Virgil had left anywhere in a long while. Virgil set the dog down by one of the cages, opened the door, and half-pushed half-lifted the dog inside. He placed his hand on the dog’s chest, in case it tried to squirm its way out as he shut the door, felt its thick mane where his finger used to be.
“I’ll be back,” he said, cleared his throat. “I’ll be back.” At the door to the storage room, he turned to look back at the dog in the cage. It lay on its side, watched Virgil, thought its thoughts.
Outside, the rendering guy had already taken the tarp from around the cage they piled the euthanized animals in, and was pulling on gloves. Virgil didn’t wear gloves when he loaded the truck, never did. The way the empty fingers sagged and flopped like flags in a stagnant summer made every job harder, made him feel clumsy and impotent. He could have cut the fingers off, he supposed, but he never had. Ruin a perfectly good pair of gloves.
Pit Bull cross, black cat, terrier, tabby, black dog, old sheepdog. They were all stiff, cold and hard like old fence posts furred with moss. The two men worked quickly, settled the bodies into the bed of the truck without speaking. The last one was still supple, and pliant, some sort of sled dog cross, white, and heavy and awkward in the lifting. Virgil laid it in the truck, remembered it had seemed, while alive, reserved and aloof, but not above a manly scratch behind the ears, didn’t care how many fingers gave it.
Pain gnawed where Virgil’s middle finger had once been, and he scratched the pit of the missing knuckle.
“What happens to them?” Virgil asked, had never asked before.
“To what?” asked the rendering guy.
Virgil pointed with his chin at the bodies in the truck bed.
“Rendered,” said the driver.
Virgil said nothing. Pulled his crushed pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket, fired one up, breathed deep.
“They get dried out, sort of, with heat, and then separated.” The rendering guy pulled off his gloves, stuck them in his coat pockets.
“From what?” asked Virgil, pinched the cigarette between thumb and index finger.
The rendering guy cocked an eyebrow at him. “Into, you know, different types of fats, bone meal, things like that.”
“What the hell for?”
“Jesus,” said the driver, shrugged. “I don’t know. Everything. Lubricants, soap, detergent, cement, ink, lipstick, drugs—like, prescription drugs—even crayons.” He shook his head.
Virgil rubbed at his empty knuckle, and wondered what had become of his fingers, for a moment had a vision of his missing middle finger in a woman’s hand as she freshened her lipstick, of kids drawing pictures on old sheets of newspaper of red and white houses with brown dogs out front on green lawns, the kids using his lost fingers as crayons. He dropped the cigarette on the ground, crushed it flat under his boot, nodded.
Virgil watched the truck drive off, the white dust of the dirt road drowning the tail lights, obscuring the truck and its gravid load. He cleared his throat, and turned back inside. In the surgery, Doctor Kim already had the dog on the examination table. Rigid and scared, it watched Virgil with wide eyes, its claws finding no grip on the scratched steel. One hand holding the red Humane Society collar around its neck, the other on its flank, she whispered words, but the dog would not be soothed.
“Virg! Could you … I need your help,” said Doctor Kim. “Just hold him, would you? Poor thing’s terrified.”
Doctor Kim—Kimberley, really—was a slight woman, where Virgil had always preferred women with what he liked to call substance, but she had the grip strength of a wrangler and a fierce smile, and when she asked for help, Virgil helped. He stood at the dog’s right side, cradled it with his hand in the fur of its chest, and it leaned against him, against his chest. The thick fur—heavy and smooth—brimmed through the space of his phantom finger. Doctor Kim glanced at him over the dog’s back, pulled on a pair of latex gloves.
“Christ, he’s been peppered with BBs,” she said, smoothed the fur of the dog’s haunches aside to get a better look. “Maybe ten or a dozen, like somebody was using him for target practice.”
“Why didn’t it run away?” asked Virgil. “Somebody shooting at it, hurting him, why didn’t he run away?”
Doctor Kim sighed. “Because it didn’t know any better. Maybe the person kept calling it back, giving it food, soothing it, before taking pot shots at it again. Some dogs just don’t bear grudges.”
Virgil said nothing, massaged the dog’s chest through the mane of fur, heard it sigh.
Doctor Kim spread the thick fur on the back of the dog’s neck, examined the oozing wounds on its head. “Cigarette burns as well. Jesus. Six or seven, maybe more. I’d say he’s been beaten too.”
“What are we gonna do?”
“Well, I’ve seen worse—we both have. So we’ll patch him up,” said Doctor Kim. “Figure out who did this to him, maybe, for what it’s worth. Find him a new home.” She eyed up Virgil, the dog in his arms. “He seems to like you.”
Virgil cleared his throat. “Yeah, well …” Cleared his throat again.
“There’s something I should have checked, just in case,” said Doctor Kim. “He might be micro-chipped. Maybe. Hold him there, would you?” she asked, as if he hadn’t been holding the dog all along.
She took the scanner from beside the computer, waved it like a wand over the back of the dog’s neck. The scanner beeped.
“He is micro-chipped,” she said. “Wasn’t expecting that.”
Virgil was old-fashioned. He liked to read the news in the newspaper, pay his way with cash money, and jerk off to pictures in a magazine. He drove stick, listened to the weather forecast on the radio, and stashed his mad money in a Folger’s coffee can hidden over the stove. Didn’t trust computers. He watched Doctor Kim fuss with the mouse and the keyboard, tried to remember what she was doing so he could do the same, saw her type something—the code from the microchip, he supposed—and watched the screen fill with script.
“He’s one of ours,” said Doctor Kim, something between a sigh and a whisper.
“From here, you mean?”
“That’s right,” said Doctor Kim. “Somebody adopted him about … let’s see. About three years ago.”
“Who?” asked Virgil.
“I have to talk to Jack,” she said. “Give me a minute.” She left, and the door swung shut behind her. Emphatic. Decisive.
Virgil sidled over to the computer, peered at the screen, wished he had his reading glasses with him, but never thought to bring them anywhere since he wasn’t much of a reader. There was a name—Melinda Castor—and an address out by the Freiburg farm. Virgil wrote it down on the back of a shipping receipt, the treacherous pen twisting in his fingers, and stuffed the sheet of paper in his back pocket.
Outside, Virgil breathed deep, coughed, and spat. It was still bright, but the afternoon teetered on the verge of the evening—long shadows and a velvet sky. The truck coughed when he turned the key, coughed but didn’t catch. He stabbed at the gas pedal with his foot, turned the key again. This time the engine caught, and fired. He found reverse, backed out of the parking space, and drove into the descending night. He stopped twice, the first time at his trailer to take the coffee can from over the stove, the second time to gas up the truck, the numbers on the pump clicking like a timer, like an omen. His truck had used to get twenty-five miles to the gallon, back when gas had been cheap, but after twenty years of hard use Virgil doubted it got anything close to that anymore, so when the pump clicked off with a thump, he brimmed the tank to overflowing, the nozzle clumsy in his hand. Twenty gallons, as near as made no difference. It would have to do.
As he drove down Main, past the customers trickling into Tobermann’s Bistro for their country fried chicken, past what was left of the pest control place with its shattered brick façade like broken teeth against the sky, past the parents bringing their children to the skating rink for Saturday night skating, the city around him began to dissolve into the evening, and soon he left it behind. He turned east onto the dirt road where he’d found the dog, the setting sun dying on the horizon, as if martyred, in his rearview mirror. At the half-stripped house with the garbage on the porch, he pulled the truck over, climbed from the cab. Other than an old Ford up on blocks, there was no car, but in the house, lights were burning. From the toolbox on the floor behind the driver’s seat, Virgil took a tire iron. A solid length of metal with a flanged edge at one end and a wrench head at the other, it was older than his truck, maybe as old as Virgil himself, and he held it cupped in his hand, its length hidden upright behind his arm.
On the porch, Virgil threaded his way through the detritus of another life. Decaying cardboard boxes full of magazines, video cassettes, empty prescription bottles, cracked mason jars, old vinyl. Stacks of beige keyboards and computer monitors, a scattering of old spray cans, some football pads, a plastic playhouse, its colors faded to pale pastels. In the space between a collapsing kitchen cabinet and a stained and sagging armchair there was a frayed blanket and a plastic food bowl, the blanket thick with golden hairs. In the armchair, muzzle pointed skyward, was a BB gun modelled after a Winchester Repeater, and on the kitchen cabinet was an empty Marlboro packet. There was more, dim uncertain shapes rising up around him like buttes in the desert, but he had seen enough. With what knuckles of his left hand he had left to him, he knocked at the door that hung crooked in its frame, heard movement inside the house, and waited.
The dying sun was warm on his back, slashing the porch in long shadows, and he thought about how far he could get on a full tank of gas. Four-hundred miles, give or take. That would take him as far as Des Moines, or Dallas, or even Little Rock, all places he had never been before, where he could start over. If his heart was thumping, he didn’t feel it. In his hand, the tire iron nestled, the bend at the wrench head snug and certain in the notch of the missing knuckle, the cold metal warming in his fist.
John Scaggs grew up in Ireland, but now lives in Kansas where he is a professor of English literature and creative writing at Southwestern College in Winfield. His fiction has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, The Evansville Review, and The Sandy River Review, and he is the author of Crime Fiction (2005), published by Routledge. He lives with his wife, young son, and two rescue dogs.